You do your best to make sure your child eats a healthy diet, offering whole foods loaded with good-for-them vitamins and minerals. But let's be real: life gets in the way sometimes. A daily multivitamin may seem like good insurance to make up for those days when dinners are on-the-go and the nutrition flag flies at half-mast.
Before you start comparing labels from the array of colorful bottles filling store shelves, Dawn D. Johnson, M.D., Medical Director of Children's Health℠ Pediatric Group says, "Hold on."
"Most children don't need a multivitamin," she says. "A balanced diet usually includes the vitamins and minerals children need."
But what about those maddening food phases all kids go through, like boycotting anything green, or a long-running commitment to a diet of grape jelly sandwiches on white bread?
"Kids are going to be picky eaters at some point," assures Dr. Johnson. "And like most people, they'll choose junk food if it's offered. It's up to parents to consistently put a plate in front of their kids that offers the different food groups."
She recommends using the MyPlate food model to see how much fruit, vegetables, whole grains and protein infants and children (and adults) should get each day.
If your child is especially selective, has an intolerance to certain foods or is on a special diet, such as vegetarian or vegan, talk to your pediatrician about what they need. In these circumstances, a supplement may be recommended based on which nutrients they need.
"There are usually other food sources that will provide what your child might be missing," says Dr. Johnson. "Many foods, like milk, cereal and orange juice are fortified.
When your child may need a vitamin supplement
Breastfeeding infants are the only group of children pediatricians routinely recommend take a vitamin supplement.
Breastfeeding infants need a vitamin D supplement from birth until they wean from breastfeeding and take formula or at 12 months when they take whole cow’s milk. If your child is formula fed or getting 32 ounces or more of formula a day, they won't need a supplement.
What to know if you're giving your child a multivitamin
If you do opt to give your child a multivitamin, Dr. Johnson says more isn't better.
"Stick to the recommended daily allowances – don't bump to mega doses," she says. "Too much of a vitamin can be dangerous and also cause side effects that range from headaches, nausea, cramps and toxic levels in the blood."
It's also important to remember that even though multivitamins are available over the counter, they're still a medicine.
"They look like candy, they're chewable and they taste good," says Dr. Johnson. "If you choose to use the gummy and chewable children's vitamins, they should be stored the way any medicine would be – out of reach from children."
Before relying on a sugar-loaded supplement, talk with your pediatrician about what your child is eating – and not eating. If there are certain things lacking in your child's diet, they can recommend different ways for them to get what they need.
Children’s Health Family Newsletter
Get health tips and parenting advice from Children’s Health experts sent straight to your inbox twice a month. Sign up now.